Democracy: Corporate Spin's Part In Its Downfall
Democracy: Corporate Spin's part in its downfall ; Or some things The Power inquiry seems to have overlooked
By David Miller
19 May 2006
The global PR industry is at the centre of the increasing inequality visible within Western countries and between the rich nations of the north and the rest of the planet. The PR industry is at the centre of attempts to undermines sustainable life on the planet and effective action against climate change and other environmental problems. The PR industry is the ideological cutting edge of global capitalism. Yet most people would struggle to name the biggest PR companies in the world or their even more shadowy parent groups. The world's worst corporations are well recognised from Bhutan, to Belize to Belfast: Coke, Nestle, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, Shell, BP, Exxon (delete as applicable). But the corporations engaged in pursuing the interests of these corporations remain much more obscure.
None so blind...
In Britain the Power inquiry which was launched in early March 2006 showed that the public is very well aware of and hostile to corporate power.
79 per cent of respondents to the State of the Nation poll in 2004 stated that they felt large corporations had a fair amount or a great deal of influence over government policies (48% and 31% respectively) while 35% felt that they should have this power (28% and 7% respectively).
One contributor to the inquiry noted that "It is not just perception that corporate lobbying influences government policy - it is actuality. Until the actuality changes, the perception will not." (Power Report, p.163)
Another mentioned the 'endemic' influence of big business which means that in policy disputes 'the corporations (with their studies, reports and gangs of lobbyists) win'. Most importantly this contributor noted 'Devolving power won’t change a thing in this regard, and neither will greater powers for elected representatives – they have the power already, what they need is independence from malign influence.'
In addition as the report noted "The main political parties are widely held in contempt. They are seen as offering no real choice to citizens." 
Given this evidence of popular opposition to corporate influence and the state of the democratic system, one might have expected some measures to specifically target corporate influence, rather than appeals to the parties to change things.
But at best there are four recommendations which bear on corporate power: measures to limit donations to parties to £10,000 for individuals and £100 per member for organisations and to funding local political activity by a voter allocated levy from public funds.
Both of these would help, but the inquiry seems not to have considered how this would affect corporate donations to the political process. Organisational donations are supposed to be subject to 'full democratic scrutiny' by members, hardly likely in a corporation which does not have 'members' in the same way as a Trades Union..
The two most direct measures to improve transparency in relation to corporate power are the recommendations that
* 'Ministerial meetings with representatives of business including lobbyists should be logged and listed on a monthly basis.'
* Ministerial meetings with campaign groups and their representatives should be logged and listed on a monthly basis.
These are measures that would introduce some transparency into the system, but they do not even include limited measures like requiring lobbyists to disclose their clients and fees. Even if regulation of lobbying was included such measures would not by themselves tackle the privileged access offered to business in all areas of governance. In the discussion of these proposals the report seems to go further by arguing there is a problem with the so called 'revolving door' where ministers can leave government and walk into well paid corporate jobs. Business actions 'should surely be the subject of open debate, scrutiny and, if necessary, control'.(p.169)
But there is not a single recommendation to bring business under control included in the report. It is as if the problems of the sclerotic political system have been brought about by accident and can be resolved by a little transparency.
In reality the neoliberal revolution has been brought about by determined campaigning by corporations and their allies in the media and the political elite. The cutting edge of this campaign has been waged by the public relations industry and the armies of lobbyists employed by the corporations to ensure that democratic decision making is consigned to the dustbin of history.
This has been accomplished by more than half a century of campaigning by the corporations going back at least as far as the creation of the shadowy Mont Pelerin Society in the immediate post war period - a gathering of free market ideologues around Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. They met together to plot how to roll back the possibility of democratic decision making and put the market in the driving seat. 
Out of this came a whole host of pro business organisations determined to take on and roll back the frontiers of social democracy. In Britain this meant the creation of a series of right wing think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Social Affairs Unit, and the Centre for Policy Studies (set up by Keith 'the mad monk' Joseph). These groups supplemented the more open campaigning organisations like Aims of Industry (from 1942) and National Propaganda (from 1919, later called the Economic League). In the US similar aims were advanced by the Conference Board (from 1916), and the Business Roundtable (from 1973), the latter playing a key role in the passing of the North America Free Trade Area agreement in the 1990s.  Internationally one of the earliest groups was the International Chamber of Commerce (set up in 1916 and still extremely active today in rolling back democratic structures).
It is well established that these groups were out to enact an economic counter-revolution which was able to take power in the UK and US with the Thatcher and Reagan regimes in 1979 and 1980. Both governments unleashed the market on their own citizens and on the world giving the process of corporate led globalisation a decisive boost.
The global industry
But it is crucial to note that the neoliberal victory was not put in place by abstract forces but had to be won by argument and action and that it proceeded from then until now by means of vastly increased investment in the machinery of information management. This took the form in particular of the emergence and global spread of the public relations industry. In the UK the PR industry expanded extremely rapidly in the 1980s managing the process of privatisation and buoyed up by its rich pickings and consequences.
The emergence of the beginnings of a global industry came in the 1990s with a huge wave of mergers and acquisitions, PR groups with offices on over 100 countries became a reality. By the turn of the century the industry had concentrated so much that the top four global groups owned more than half the global market in advertising, marketing, PR and lobbying. These global corporations which entered the top 500 global corporations in the early part of this century. But most people have never heard of these corporations. The big three WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic, are deeply obscure. WPP a company originally called Wire and Plastic Products, famously used to make supermarket trolleys. Today it owns hundreds of firms engaged in deceptive spin and putting corporate wishes into action. Among the largest and most well known are Burson Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton, both famous for their deceptive campaigns on behalf of the world's worst corporations, torturers and dictators.
The common interest
Looking back on it, these corporate missionaries might have been following the advice of Marx and Engels in one of their earliest works written in 1846. 'Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it' they wrote 'is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society,'
The essence of this work is to wage the battle of ideas across the whole political structure - not just, or even mainly, in relation to convincing public opinion. The focus on public opinion has - if anything- grown comparatively less in the recent past as the ability of ordinary people to make a difference in politics has declined. As the former spin doctor for Volkswagen and the German nuclear industry, Klaus Kocks, puts it 'When there is no election, no-one gives a damn what the electorate thinks' 
Instead PR people concentrate their efforts on direct communications with shareholders, political decision makers, other sections of the global elite. To do so, PR specialists must engage in deception. At best this means attempting to align specific corporate or class interests with the general interest. At worst it means deception, lies and dirty tricks. Either way it is not pleasant.
To take only one key example the use of the deceptive spin tactic known in the industry as the 'third party' technique. This recognises that corporate views openly stated might garner a sceptical reception. Rather than engage in open debate the spin doctor's advice is to disguise the source of the message by inducing others to state it. A newer twist on this is simply to invent people or organisations with no apparent corporate connection. This gives rise to the phenomenon of the fake persuader.
The history of fake persuaders and fake news in the UK is not well known , but there are examples sponsored by corporations going back many decades. When the post 1945 labour government thought about nationalising the sugar industry, the defensive campaign was run by Tate and Lyle and the right wing lobby group Aims of Industry. They arranged for the revered BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby to interview Tate and Lyle staff and distributed many thousands of copies of the result, the accompanying leaflet quoted Dimbleby's view that he was 'an impartial observer' who found 'astonishingly unanimous' and 'spontaneous and unrehearsed' opposition to nationalisation. 
This early example overseen by the propaganda agency Aims of Industry shows that Britain has a long history of fakery in persuasion. But more important is the trend towards the direct corporate control of information media. This has been something that PR operatives in the UK have been conscious of and trying to influence for some time. An early example of this was the joint venture between ITN and Burson Marsteller, one of the biggest and least ethical PR firms in the world. Corporate television News was based inside ITN headquarters with full access to ITN archives and made films for Shell and other Trans national corporations. This tendency for the corporations to own the media of communication directly instead of having to get their message out in the media. In 1999, one of the UK's leading lobbyists Graham Lancaster (then of Biss Lancaster, now owned by global communication giant Havas) expounded his view that PR firms 'will increasingly 'own their own channels for delivery to customers superceding 'media'. PR channels will become 'infomediaries'. But the important quality that they must have is apparent independence - they must be in other words fake news channels. 
PR firms have been busy developing their own channels. One venture, pioneered by Brunswick, one of the most secretive PR companies in the UK provides what it calls 'London's premier business presentation centre' within their own expensive offices in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. The Lincoln Centre a subsidiary of Brunswick also provides webcasting service to companies such as Atkins, Spirent, Diageo and compass Group' 
The PR industry is quite open about the reasons for this trend in the trade press. PR Week reports that spinners are 'enthusiastic' about the development: 'it avoids the embarassing howelrs that a press conference can create', says one. Citing the example of corporate fat cat Cedric Brown of British Gas being 'torn into by journalists' when trapped in a lift, Keren Haynes of Shout! Communications notes that had Brown 'been at the other end of a webcast, such a situation would never have happened'. This kind of total message control is handled by PR agencies as well as a new breed of fake news providers. BAA, for example commissions the controversial firm World Television to produce its webcasting programme. World Television was recently revealed by Spinwatch as the company behind a British government fake news service called British Satellite News. 
A new venture by one of New Labour's favourite PR people, Julia Hobsbawm, attempts to blur the lines between spin and journalism even further. Her new venture launched after the sudden demise of her allegedly 'ethical' PR firm (as a result of bad debts owed to the firm), is titled Editorial Intelligence and involves dubious characters like the disgraced lobbyist Derek Draper. The aim appears to be to curtail the ability of journalists to properly report on the PR industry or its corporate clients. 
The wider project of the PR industry of which the direct takeover of the channels of communication is part, is to abolish the possibility of independent journalism, whilst maintaining the appearance of independent media in order to sustain the patina of credibility. In this they are at one with Blair and Bush in their attempts to enforce what they call 'Information dominance' one of the five key aspects of 'Full spectrum dominance'. 
Fake persuasion and asbestos dumps
A recent example fake persuasion in the UK is the campaign by developer Countryside Properties to undermine opposition to their plans to build 600plus houses on the site of the World's largest Asbestos factory. The campaign against the development focused on the threat from asbestos and on the environmental and destruction entailed in removing mature woodland. They adopted an old but forgotten name foe the area in North West Rochdale - Spodden Valley. Their website is www.Spodden-Valley.co.uk. The campaigners started to notice something odd when supporters mistyped their web address and found themselves browsing the website of Countryside Properties. It transpired that CD9 Design Ltd. Based in Mayfair, London had registered four domain names similar to the campaign group:
When visitors clicked on these they were automatically redirected to the countryside properties website. Countryside properties employs three separate PR companies- Meredith Thomas, Harrison Cowley and PPS Group. PPS also has a number of government clients including the Scottish Executive, some would say this is evidence of a conflict of interest, since they operate for both the client and the government body responsible for taking decisions on some planning matters.
The campaigners complained to Nominet which regulates UK domain names. They won and have had all the domain names turned over to them from Countryside amid much grudging apologies about 'miscommmunication'. 
The examples just quoted are usually targeted at specific constituencies of opinion. They are about managing and manipulating the information environment and enacting particular way of doing things. This is not a question of winning the battle of ideas in the abstract but of concretely moving the society one way or another. It is about the way in which some information and some ideas allow certain kinds of action and decision making or, more accurately, are part of the process by which certain acts are put into practice. In other words discussing the Public Relations industry is not a matter only of evaluating the progress of ideas but of understanding how the concrete form of inequality and domination is put into practice. Ideas have no independent existence from the material conditions and struggles of life. To understand the real role of the PR industry we should 'not explain practice from the idea but explain... the formation of ideas from material practice'. The PR industry is not some free floating pustule on the surface of a globalising world but the cutting edge of corporate power in its campaign to stifle democracy. To ask - as the Power inquiry does - for only modest disclosure of Ministerial contacts with special interests is not a serious response to the decline of democracy. Instead what is needed is the exposure of the PR industry and a series of measures to bring it and the corporations for which it acts to heel. Otherwise democratic politics are finished.
1. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, State of the Nation Poll 2004: Summary of main findings, ICM Research http://www.jrrt.org.uk/FINDINGS.pdf
2. 'Power to the People', The Report of Power: An independent inquiry into Britain's Democracy, February 27, 2006, http://www.powerinquiry.org, p.29.
3. Richard Cockett (1995) Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution 1931-1983 London: Harper Collins.
4. John MacArthur (2001) The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, Berkeley: University of California Press
5. Klaus Kocks, comments at 'A complicated, antagonistic and symbiotic affair: Journalism, Public Relations and their struggle for public attention', The Swiss School of Journalism, Lucerne, Switzerland, March 18 2006. See also David Miller 'Nuclear view: spin doctor defends lying', Spinwatch, 28 March 2006.
6. cited in Shirley Harrison, 2003, Professionalism in public relations, the professional papers of Tim Traverse-Healy, Part 4, Practice, http://www.pr-50years.co.uk/part4_practice.doc
7. Comments by Graham Lancaster to Transnational Communication in Europe: Practice and Research, Confederation of European Public Relations International Congress Berlin, 28-31 October, 1999.
9. Rob Gray, 'Webcasts deliver the Results', PR Week, 17 March 2006: p26.
10. David Miller, 'The propaganda we pass off as news around the world', The Guardian, Wednesday February 15, 2006 http://media.guardian.co.uk/site/story/0,,1709959,00.html
11. See http://www.editorialintelligence.com
12. David Miller (2005) ‘Information Dominance: The philosophy of total propaganda control’, In Kamalipour, Y. and Snow, N. (Eds) War, Media and Propaganda: A global perspective, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. pp7-16
13. 'Managing directors of Countryside Properties and MMC Estates issue an apology', Rochdale Online, http://www.rochdaleonline.co.uk/News/spodden_news.asp?ID=879
14. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1846) The German Ideology, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/